Rich on The Titanic
Sunday, Aug 16, 2009
Any man who reads the newspapers will encounter the phrase “even women and children” a couple times a month, usually about being killed. The literal meaning of this phrase is that men’s lives have less value than other people’s lives. The idea is usually “It’s bad if people are killed, but it’s especially bad if women and children are killed.” And I think most men know that in an emergency, if there are women and children present, he will be expected to lay down his life without argument or complaint so that the others can survive. On the Titanic, the richest men had a lower survival rate (34%) than the poorest women (46%) (though that’s not how it looked in the movie). That in itself is remarkable. The rich, powerful, and successful men, the movers and shakers, supposedly the ones that the culture is all set up to favor — in a pinch, their lives were valued less than those of women with hardly any money or power or status. The too-few seats in the lifeboats went to the women who weren’t even ladies, instead of to those patriarchs.
Most cultures have had the same attitude. Why? There are pragmatic reasons. When a cultural group competes against other groups, in general, the larger group tends to win out in the long run. Hence most cultures have promoted population growth. And that depends on women. To maximize reproduction, a culture needs all the wombs it can get, but a few penises can do the job. There is usually a penile surplus. If a group loses half its men, the next generation can still be full-sized. But if it loses half its women, the size of the next generation will be severely curtailed. Hence most cultures keep their women out of harm’s way while using men for risky jobs.
These risky jobs extend beyond the battlefield. Many lines of endeavor require some lives to be wasted. Exploration, for example: a culture may send out dozens of parties, and some will get lost or be killed, while others bring back riches and opportunities. Research is somewhat the same way: There may be a dozen possible theories about some problem, only one of which is correct, so the people testing the eleven wrong theories will end up wasting their time and ruining their careers, in contrast to the lucky one who gets the Nobel prize. And of course the dangerous jobs. When the scandals broke about the dangers of the mining industry in Britain, Parliament passed the mining laws that prohibited children under the age of 10 and women of all ages from being sent into the mines. Women and children were too precious to be exposed to death in the mines: so only men. As I said earlier, the gender gap in dangerous work persists today, with men accounting for the vast majority of deaths on the job.
Another basis of male expendability is built into the different ways of being social. Expendability comes with the large groups that male sociality creates. In an intimate, one-to-one relationship, neither person can really be replaced. You can remarry if your spouse dies, but it isn’t really the same marriage or relationship. And of course nobody can ever really replace a child’s mother or father.
In contrast, large groups can and do replace just about everybody. Take any large organization — the Ford Motor Company, the U.S. Army, the Green Bay Packers — and you’ll find that the organization goes on despite having replaced every single person in it. Moreover, every member off those groups knows he or she can be replaced and probably will be replaced some day.
Thus, men create the kind of social networks where individuals are replaceable and expendable. Women favor the kind of relationships in which each person is precious and cannot truly be replaced.
Is There Anything Good About Men?, Roy F. Baumeister, American Psychological Association, Invited Address, 2007, http://www.psy.fsu.edu/~baumeistertice/goodaboutmen.htm.